"People have asked me: 'Alex, how do you stay so strong in the gospel?' I testify about how I cannot deny the miracles I have experienced in my life and specifically on my mission. Because of my mission and experience coming home early, I KNOW, without a doubt, that the church is true. I know that God loves me enough to cut us down only to help us grow."
I grew up singing the primary song “I hope they call me on a mission. When I have grown a foot or two.” This became my grandmother’s favorite song and she would always call me her little missionary. I knew I needed to serve for her and because it’s a priesthood duty. Several years later, I did in fact grow a foot or two. Reality sunk in and I knew I needed to decide on if I would serve or not. Beginning of my senior year, I honestly didn’t want to go serve a mission. It wasn’t until I had some life changing, spiritual experiences that changed my testimony and desire to serve.
For future reference: Before turning my papers in, I had experienced depression but nothing too severe to seek treatment. So, I didn’t think much of it and I acted with faith to pursue a full-time mission.
When I arrived in the MTC, I had the best experience. I LOVED THE MTC! While there, I was called to be a district leader. This gave me the extra push to grow spiritually and confidence within myself because I was often the quiet one in my district. A few days before we departed to the mission field, I experienced my first mental breakdown on my mission while we were preparing for bed. I didn’t fully know why other than I was overwhelmed with the task of leaving home, breaking out of my comfort zone, feeling worthless, and having negative thoughts about myself eat my mind. The next night as a district, we had a venting session because we all felt stressed and overwhelmed. I couldn’t help but break down in tears about how scared I was because I was feeling nothing but worthlessness and just overwhelming sense of judgment toward myself. I received a priesthood blessing after by my companion and the other elders in the district. What stood out to me was he said not that I would be healed but that my trials would give me the strength to know how to comfort and uplift others. I pressed forward with faith and arrived in Washington DC.
When I arrived in my mission, my trainer had only been out for 6 weeks. 6 WEEKS! Needless to say, we both struggled a little to really grasp the idea of what a missionary is. We both got along and worked really well together. I experienced the usual greenie blues of being homesick and falling short sometimes. Half-way through my 2nd transfer, we both hit rock bottom.
I noticed my companion feeling down and not motivated to do anything. He never would talk about it and when I brought it up he said he was fine. This got me down and hard on myself. Did I do something? Is this what missionary work is like? Finally, out of nowhere, he cracked one night and just burst into tears explaining just some of the things he felt. We immediately called the mission president and set up an interview. Things were quiet between us from then on. I never fully knew what was going on with him but he continually said that he need to go home. I was shocked and thought no you can’t go! You’re a great missionary, my only friend, what will I do? I’m not even done being trained! We received the call the next night on a P-Day that his flight would leave the next morning. I was distraught for him but confused on what was going to happen to me. We quickly got a bite to eat somewhere and headed back home for him to pack. I was in shock at what was happening. All I knew what to do was serve and love him.
He left, and I was placed in a trio to finish out the transfer for the next 3 weeks. I was paired with two of my best friends from the mission. I knew it was going to be fun but didn’t expect what was about to come at me. Now let’s review, with my companion gone, I am not only left alone to run the area but hardly know the ward, area, or how “to be missionary.” I’m clear on the other side of the country in an unfamiliar place. I was already feeling homesick and having the typical greenie struggles. On top of that, I have to help my two new companions with their area as well. This drove me to a spiral of major anxiety and depression. I literally hit rock bottom. Things were going okay for the first few days together, but my companions could notice something was up with me. I had been holding in all my emotions to be brave for my companion and finally one day just exploded with all my missionary anxiety. We went home after dinner one night so that I could just cry and cry and cry. For the remainder of the transfer, there were some days where I didn’t want to leave the apartment; days where I said nothing; days where I would cry because I was crying; or days where I couldn’t help but cry at random moments. I felt that Satan was really working against me.
Now, I’m not telling this in full detail because it’s hard to describe in words everything I’d been feeling and would like to leave some details out. But know that I really hit rock bottom and never felt so alone, depressed, anxious, devastated, and sadly abandoned from God than at that time in my life. How could God allow someone giving 2 years of their time to serving Him and allow them to suffer through it? Bless my poor companions because they truly knew and learned how to love and serve even when I was stubborn. I met with my mission president frequently over these periods and discussed possibly coming home. At this time, I’d been out for about 3 months. I didn’t want to give up. So, I just toughened up and pushed through.
I met with a LDS Family Services counselor over the phone for several weeks but that didn’t do much other than a spark of hope. This is when I first discovered my favorite scripture when the counselor shared with me Ether 12:26. Since Family Services didn’t help, my mission president suggested I meet with a therapist and receive medication. This was a huge step because I had never been on a frequent dose of medication before. I was told that missionary medical’s policy is that I can start medications on my mission for mental health but if I decide to stop then I would have to go home (I might be wrong, but it was something along those lines). I didn’t want to end my mission, so I chose to meet with the therapist and get on medication. It took several trials and errors to find the right dose and drug. I didn’t like my therapist, so it was hard to open up to her, but she had great insight and teachings. The hardest part was that she wasn’t LDS, so it was hard to explain how I was truly feeling.
To sum up major points throughout my mission, I served in a total of 4 ½ areas (1/2 because of the transfer I was sent to be in another area in a trio after my companion went home at the beginning of my mission). My first companion went home early. Then I had the rock-solid trio, but it was during that time that I hit my low. My fourth companion was a hard companion to get along with and didn’t know how to help whatsoever with my anxiety/depression. My fifth companion was a huge blessing of comfort and friendship, but I could tell I annoyed him with my frequent breakdowns and self-criticism. After my fifth companion, I was put into another trio for 2 weeks until the 3rd Elder (seventh companion) completed his mission. My sixth companion was a huge blessing and a dear friend as we white washed an area from scratch. This is when I was the happiest and just felt successful. I had the privilege of training my son, Elder Smith, but sadly he went home early after a transfer. This brought me back into a spiral of considering going home while I was paired with my ninth companion who was the hardest companion to get along with because we were polar opposites. He ended up going home early due to medical issues, but later returned. After him, I got my tenth companion who was one of my favorite companions and a breath of fresh air. At this time, I served as district leader for a transfer. Finally, that leads us to my last area with my best friend from the mission. (You can always ask me later for a more detailed explanation of my other struggles and experiences throughout my mission.) But keep in mind that at this point, I had experienced 3 companions who returned home early, so returning home was on my mind as an option throughout my mission.
This is the hardest part of my story to tell...
Before I was transferred to my last area, I was explaining to my Mission President how depressed I was, and just needed a new area and fresh start since I had been in my current area for 7 ½ months. At transfers, he put me with my eleventh and final companion (who was a member of my favorite trio from the beginning of my mission). We had a blast that first week. Suddenly, I got more exhausted. I was starting to hit another low and back into the same constant depression I had at the beginning of my mission. I was even beginning to doubt my testimony. What’s the point if no one will listen? Is this worth it? Is God even there? Is this church even true? Those are crazy things to say as a missionary, but it was how I felt. Bless his heart, but my companion did everything he could to make me happy. He always knew how. But it didn’t solve the fact that I was at the same all time low that I had experienced previously at the beginning of my mission. I had no desire to get out of bed, and often never left the apartment. My companion pushed me out the door saying you’ll be better if you just go out. But I didn’t want to, I would rather just lay on my bed and review the list in my head of how much of an awful person I am and if the church was true. Sadly, the pressure and turmoil of missionary work got worse and so did the depression and anxiety.
My mission became strict on mileage allotment. To save miles, we were forced to walk for a majority of the day because a) I didn’t have a bike and b) our area covered a third of the mission because it was a YSA ward. I wasn’t eating very well, and the humidity/heat was getting to me as we walked all day. I refused to talk to people because how was I supposed to talk about something that I wasn’t sure of myself? How was I supposed to teach others about true happiness when I didn’t feel happy myself? I had given up hope that people would listen. I was self-conscious about myself and was tired of the continued rejection. I always got a mini anxiety attack when we were tracting. In the past, this wasn’t a problem). Suddenly it became more frequent. My breathing became heavy and I would have to take a break because my anxiety was out of control. There was one time that I knew something was wrong.
My companion LOVED street contacting and knocking doors. As we were walking down a street, he kept trying to get me to talk to people, but I wasn’t a) in the right mind frame and b) wasn’t feeling the spirit. Finally, I braved the courage and talked to someone just so he would stop bugging me. As I approached the man I said hey and then choked. I couldn’t speak. I just froze. Ehat felt like eternity was in reality 10 seconds of me with my mouth open. I finally just walked away while my companion gave him a pass along card and ran to catch up to me. He then began to chew me out. I knew I couldn’t do missionary work anymore at that point. I sat in lessons and didn’t feel the spirit or would say much. I sat in church and just felt numb. What was wrong me? My mind was flooding with awful criticism of all the bad things that have happened in my life like a film tape. Where was God?
I’m going to come back to this idea of God abandoning us later but wanted to share my decision to come home. That’s right, MY decision. Unlike most missionaries, my story is unique in that I chose to come home after fasting and praying to Heavenly Father, frequently meeting with my mission president, and talking to my parents on the phone. I spent my entire last transfer pondering the decision to return home. I spent my last 3 weeks thinking non-stop about going home and praying every day to know if it was time.
I remember the night I prayed and received my answer. It was the same day I froze on the street. My mom had counseled me in an email earlier that week to make a list of the pros and cons with staying or going. I then took it to the Lord and asked. I prayed over and over and just sat in the bedroom crying and received no answer. It wasn’t until I let go of my pride and asked saying that I would follow what is according to God’s will. My answer didn’t come a loud crash or a descending of light, a vision, or a miraculous stupor of thought, but rather, a still small voice saying, “your work here is done.”
Since coming home, I’ve seen why this was part of Heavenly Father’s plan for me. Transitioning into normal life wasn’t hard for me because I served state-side but figuring out a plan for my future was difficult. I had the typical homecoming because I wanted to feel like I served and knew it would help me cope. I had plans to do a service mission when I came home but ended up choosing to serve in the temple as an ordinance worker instead. I served as a ward missionary and even helped teach a young man who later got baptized. I attended a support group by the church, but it just didn’t click for me. My close friend, Nica, introduced me to Mission Fortify and I’ve loved it ever since. I now serve as an ERM mentor for Mission Fortify. I love the environment of friendship, their mission to serve and love, and the ability to find closure. My mission experience has led me to a desire to study psychology in hopes to become a counselor or therapist to teens and young adults.
I’ve learned that the conversion process doesn't stop at baptism but is a continuous process known as enduring to the end. The following is an exert from a talk Elder Christofferson gave in general conference that became a turning point for me from looking at my experience as negative to positive.
“President Hugh B. Brown, formerly a member of the Twelve and a counselor in the First Presidency, provided a personal experience. He told of purchasing a rundown farm in Canada many years ago. As he went about cleaning up and repairing his property, he came across a currant bush that had grown over 6 ft. high and was yielding no berries, so he pruned it back drastically, leaving only small stumps. Then he saw a drop like a tear on the top of each of these little stumps, as if the currant bush were crying, and thought he heard it say:
“How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth. … And now you have cut me down. Every plant in the garden will look down on me. … How could you do this to me? I thought you were the gardener here.”
President Brown replied, “Look, little currant bush, I am the gardener here, and I know what I want you to be. I didn’t intend you to be a fruit tree or a shade tree. I want you to be a currant bush, and someday, little currant bush, when you are laden with fruit, you are going to say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for loving me enough to cut me down.’”
Years later, President Brown was a field officer in the Canadian Army serving in England. When a superior officer became a battle casualty, President Brown was in line to be promoted to general, and he was summoned to London. But even though he was fully qualified for the promotion, it was denied him because he was a Mormon.
“I got on the train and started back … with a broken heart, with bitterness in my soul. … When I got to my tent, … I threw my cap on the cot. I clenched my fists, and I shook them at heaven. I said, ‘How could you do this to me, God?
“And then I heard a voice, and I recognized the tone of this voice. It was my own voice, and the voice said, ‘I am the gardener here. I know what I want you to do.’ The bitterness went out of my soul, and I fell on my knees by the cot to ask forgiveness for my ungratefulness. …
“… And now, almost 50 years later, I look up to [God] and say, ‘Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down, for loving me enough to hurt me.’”
I felt like the current bush in saying “How could you do this to me? I was making such wonderful growth. … And now you have cut me down. Every missionary and member will look down on me … How could you do this to me? I thought you were the master here.” One night on my mission, I prayed for strength to endure and received the answer of I am the master here and I know what I want you to become. Suddenly a rush of peace came over me. To this day, I say thank you Heavenly Father, for loving me enough to break me down so that I can become a better disciple of Jesus Christ.
At times, I do doubt and question but I remain strong despite of it all. People have asked me, “Alex, how do you stay so strong in the gospel?” I testify about how I cannot deny the miracles I experienced in my life and specifically on my mission. Because of my mission and experience coming home early, I KNOW, without a doubt, that the church is true. I know that God loves each of us enough to cut us down only to help us grow.